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Opinion - Should universities operate as business entities?

2021-09-17  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Should universities operate as business entities?
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Government budget cuts for higher education institutions and the global economic slump have had far-reaching effects on the operations of universities. The situation has been further worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is common knowledge that some universities are struggling to survive and that economic woes are threatening the quality of education they offer in different respects. In an attempt to mitigate these negatives, higher education institutions have been encouraged to generate extra income through commercialisation activities within the institutions.

But the questions that need to be addressed are: Should universities operate both as business entities and centres of knowledge creation? Will they be able to balance the acts? Should universities be farming to make money to support themselves, for instance? As we see it, unless there is some academic advancement in it, the answer is probably no (unless there is an education justification): cutting edge farming, exploring new techniques is innovation and is where a higher education institution should position its research.  

Academics are expected to produce new theories and products, and to push the boundaries of knowledge.  Of course, this makes the whole thing a competition, all academic staff, all over the world, are doing this and within disciplines; very often globally, academics are working on the same problems.  So, it is not surprising then that although independently produced, some of the solutions are similar and come out at almost the same time:  what matters however is that one laboratory or research group gets there first.  This can lead to an intense situation, many laboratories and research groups are aware of each other and will collaborate, simply because they want to win.

Intense competition can enable innovation that is cutting edge, innovation can be theoretical or practical, the further back the research is from a novel real product or process, the longer this whole thing takes to impact on the lives of people, animals, or the environment.  

Innovation in Basic Sciences is not too difficult to do if the researcher has the expertise, for instance if the researcher is manipulating molecular processes or indulging in drug discovery, but much more difficult to express to the general public, and it needs a lot of funding, a huge amount of expertise and usually, a long timeline.

Innovation in Applied Sciences and Humanities is also not too difficult for the expert, and the one thing that it has over Basic Science innovation, is that it is easier to describe its potential impact and is thus, probably, easier to fund.

For the average academic the difficulties come at the eventual translation exercise.  Every innovation needs to get to the translation stage, and this is where many new ideas fall down:  ‘the valley of death’.  At this point translation into real life products and processes needs support of specialised professionals who understand the legal aspects of new product production, and things like, definition of ownership, registration, production runs and upscaling, business cases, business partnering and translational funding.  This is not easy for the academic, it must not be attempted alone.  

Many academics want to retain a great deal of ownership, but quite frankly, unless they are a very special type of ‘entrepreneur academic’ (rather than innovator academic), they are likely to fail.  A close working relationship with the university commercialisation office is essential. 

‘To get there first’ in terms of an impactful product requires huge effort and a complete support system from beginning to end.  If universities and grant funders invest in staff and their ‘cleverness’ they must also invest in the translation and the entrepreneurship aspects of any novel development.  A frustrating lack of investment at these latter stages is frequently the case, everywhere in the world.  

Innovative thinking is the core activity of any academic; it inevitably leads to considerations of intellectual ownership. The academic says, ‘this is my idea and not the university’s’. This has always been a tricky for universities.  Universities employ people because, by conventional definitions, they are clever, they make new constructs.  This is their raison d’être; however, it does not mean the ideas produced belong to the staff member.  As academics are employed by universities and funded by them the university owns the idea, whether the academic agrees or not.  To pursue this properly however, a university must have a solid system of recognising the academic’s creativity and rewarding them through profit sharing, otherwise the academic will feel disenfranchised and take a step back from further engagement.  Everyone will have lost out when this happens. 

An academic must buy-in a system, otherwise they will try and go their own way. Academics frequently try to register and pay for their own Intellectual Property, even when it is in their university field.  This is open to legal challenge and failure, expensive failure.  Universities must have solid Intellectual Property policies and sharing strategies to stop this, which everybody agrees to up front. 

If universities want to control valuable intellectual outputs, they must have systems to ease the burden on the last stages of product and process development.  This is often a Cinderella of funding in universities, however higher education has a duty to invest and succeed so that their members of staff can be ‘first past the post’.  This is where academic kudos lies. Related to this, it is not a secret that many universities strive to become world-class universities, a status they will acquire  when they are ‘… able to select the best students and attract the most qualified professors and researchers … the fact that world-class-universities succeed in mobilizing diverse national and international academic staff is likely to maximize these institutions’ knowledge-networking capacity’  (Salmi, 2009).

There must be a commitment to the funding of Intellectual Property and translation throughout its whole life cycle, otherwise it is like dropping the baton in a relay race!

2021-09-17  Staff Reporter

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